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Wally Pfister is probably one of the most talented, yet unheralded, workers in Hollywood today. Many may not know that he’s actually the man behind the camera for every single one of director Christopher Nolan’s films (aside from his first, “Following,” and his upcoming sci-fi film, “Interstellar”). He even won an Oscar for his cinematography work on “Inception,” so it’s clear the man has talent. He knows how to shoot a movie and evoke emotions through visuals. Since film is a visual medium, that strength is arguably the most valuable to have in Hollywood. In this regard, his directorial debut, “Transcendence,” follows his tradition of excellence (despite being shot by “Hot Fuzz” and “The Spectacular Now” cinematographer, Jess Hall), but it’s lacking nearly everywhere else. Pfister certainly picked some things up from Nolan, but he lacks his penchant for storytelling. With an uneven pace and unexplored themes, “Transcendence” can be described as little more than a missed opportunity.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an artificial intelligence expert. With many years of research and hard work behind him, he hopes to one day create a machine that will be able to reach singularity—or as he likes to put it, transcendence—that moment in time when a machine reaches superhuman intelligence. It’s a vision that doesn’t seem to be too far off in the future, which sparks a radical movement of extremists determined to stop it. After giving a speech about the future of artificial intelligence, a member of that extremist group shoots him. Although he survives the attack, the bullet is shown to have been laced with poison, which entered his bloodstream, giving him only a month to live. In light of this, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) comes up with a crazy idea. She suggests planting a nanochip in his brain and uploading his consciousness to a supercomputer, thus ensuring he lives on. Her partner, Max (Paul Bettany), reluctantly agrees to give it a shot, though the odds of success are low. Much to their surprise, however, it works and Will is essentially alive, or as close as one can be to it, in a computer.

These early moments, along with the closing, are perhaps the best in the entire film. Though essentially a sped up tragedy—complete with dramatic music, emotional breakdowns and even a sad Morgan Freeman narration for good measure—it works. The capable actors bring their characters to life, upping the ante for what’s to come. However, anyone who has seen a film about technology achieving sentience will see all of it coming from a mile away, which is to say things don’t quite go according to plan.

This gives way to a plethora of wonderful ideas that, sadly, are haphazardly introduced and never intelligently expanded on. At one point, after Will reaches his sought after transcendence, the film seems to be heading in the right direction and finds its focus. Will begins to heal the sick, even those with long time illnesses that modern medicine hasn’t found cures for yet. He lets the blind see, the paralyzed walk and more. It asks, what if we could be better than God? What if we could fix the mistakes a supposed flawless creator burdened us with? What if we could see everything all at once, as any omnipotent being should? What if we could heal someone’s potentially life threating injuries in seconds, to the point where it’s like those injuries never even happened? These are compelling thoughts, ones that seem wonderful at first, but the complications of playing God slowly reveal themselves, showing that these vulnerabilities and afflictions are what make us human.

Granted, the effects of playing God are hardly breaking new cinematic ground, but they gave “Transcendence” the weight it so desperately needed. Unfortunately, it’s also around this point that it introduces its most absurd idea: the taking over of actual human bodies through the use of nanobots and “connecting” them to Will’s digital infrastructure. While I hesitate to say that such an event is completely out of the realm of scientific plausibility, it nevertheless gives the film that typical Hollywood feel and essentially strips it of the ideas it had just minutes before introduced.

Despite messy narrative and thematic arcs, “Transcendence” still manages to pack a ton of awe into its runtime, mostly thanks to Pfister’s understanding of cinematography. The shot composition is solid, the camera movements are fluid and its interesting focus on seemingly mundane objects ground the film. For those interested in the technical creation of filmmaking, “Transcendence” will be a thing of beauty, but it all goes back to those missed opportunities. Despite similar central ideas, it never quite reaches the bombastic action of something like “The Terminator” or the heartfelt wonders of last year’s “Her.” It tries to combine both into one cohesive whole, one that can tug at the heartstrings while also keeping things exciting, but, ultimately, it collapses under the weight of its own ambition.

Transcendence receives 2.5/5


The Raid 2: Berandal

Indonesia’s smash 2011 film, “The Raid: Redemption,” came out of nowhere and surprised action fans everywhere. Releasing in most territories the following year, it managed to keep up a breakneck pace throughout its 101 minute runtime and, though the story was minimal, the action was mesmerizing. When someone makes the claim that it’s one of the best action movies they’ve ever seen, it’s likely not hyperbolic. It truly is that good. This year’s sequel, “The Raid 2: Berandal,” doesn’t quite live up to the precedent set by its predecessor, primarily due to an expanded focus on a sometimes uneven story, but the action is just as good. If the action in the original blew you away, the action in the sequel will too, just less frequently.

The film begins shortly after the events of the first one. Rama (Iko Uwais) quickly learns that the crime syndicate that he just tore through in that criminal controlled tenement building attracted the attention of the larger crime lords in the Jakarta area. One of the leaders has a son named Ucok (Arifin Putra) in prison, so his first step is to go undercover as a criminal in that prison and get close to him. After saving his life in a prison riot, his father believes a debt is owed, so he recruits him into his syndicate. Rama’s ultimate goal is to earn the trust of those in the syndicate and eventually uncover the corrupt police officers and politicians that are truly in charge, but his challenge becomes a bit harder when Ucok tries to incite a mob war with the Japanese.

And that’s only a small portion of an overloaded story that switches focus from the Indonesian crime lord to their Japanese rivals to a number of hired hands and back again. One side story revolves around Prakoso, a new character confusingly played by an actor from the original, Yayan Ruhian, and his love for his family. A mostly worthless scene with his estranged wife tries to set up some emotion that will compliment an upcoming event, but its perfunctory attempt falls flat. It goes pretty much nowhere and has little significance to the larger plot.

In fact, many events in the film feel like little more than flimsy reasons to show off the cast’s martial arts skill. The first one was guilty of this as well, but it never pretended to be anything more than that while this sequel clearly has higher aspirations, so the film turns into what can only be described as a give and take. The story isn’t bad, despite some haphazard storytelling, and is even welcome after the empty narrative from before, but it’s sometimes hard not to wish it would just shut up and get back to the action. The first film wasn’t as acclaimed as it was because of its story; very few people would argue otherwise. It was acclaimed because of the impressive hand-to-hand choreography.

But when it gets to that action, there is simply nothing like it (aside from the first movie, of course). “The Raid 2” features some of the most impressive hand-to-hand fighting ever put to screen, particularly a battle near the end that takes place in a whiter than white kitchen. The stark contrast between the clean surroundings and the blood that eventually begins to spill is visually pleasing, but the moves on display are even better. In nearly every way possible, these late movie action scenes up the ante from the first film, due in large part to its grander scope, which allows them to bring together a car chase, close quarters hand-to-hand combat and a good old fashioned shootout in one glorious sequence.

Occasionally, “The Raid 2” feels like its showcasing the overt violence more than the actual martial arts, like when Rama holds an opponent’s face down on a teppanyaki-like grill for an unnecessarily long period of time. But when it comes back from these moments with action scenes that rival some of the best that had come before, it’s easy to forgive. It stumbles here and there, including in an early scene during a prison riot that’s less about the fantastic choreography and more about random inmates sliding through the mud occasionally landing some blows on each other, but it’s by and large an exciting event. Even its cinematography and editing live up to the high standards of the rest of the film by cleverly playing with viewers’ perspective on at least a few occasions.

“The Raid 2: Berandal” was clearly crafted with much love and care. It seems to desire to be more than the original, but in many ways it’s less. Its higher aspirations lead to a grander story and give more reason to care about the characters (even if only slightly), but in doing so, it deviates from the very thing that made the “The Raid: Redemption” so good. If the story had been more original and carried out in a more careful manner, this would have easily surpassed that film. As it stands, however, it’s firmly planted as runner-up, but when you consider the lofty expectations it had to live up to, it’s still mighty impressive.

The Raid 2: Berandal receives 4/5


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Has superhero fatigue set in? Six years have passed since the first “Iron Man” film, with each year seemingly more crammed with costumed heroes than the last, so one has to wonder how much longer this will last before the subgenre implodes on itself. If “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is any indication, it still has some legs, though it’s clear that we’re crossing into “been-there-done-that” territory at this point.

Although it had its detractors, I would argue that 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” is one of the best in the recent Marvel canon, right up there with “Iron Man” because the film showcased the type of courageousness and nobleness one would expect from a hero. Captain America didn’t fight for any other reason than because it was the right thing to do and his big heart and selfless desires—to fight and even die for his country, if necessary—validated him. He was a character that was easy to root for and love. Thematically, the film didn’t have much going on, but as a character study, it worked, which forgave its thematic thinness. “The Winter Soldier” introduces more themes, many of which pertain to today’s world due, in part, to its modern setting, but neglects to follow through on them. That is the film’s biggest deficiency.

The story takes place in Washington, D.C. where the Captain, also known as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to his new life as a part of the Avengers working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage agency that deals primarily with superhuman threats. S.H.I.E.L.D., under the leadership of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) is about to launch Operation Insight, which will place machine gun mounted helicarriers in the sky that are designed to protect the country’s citizens. The Captain doesn’t agree with this operation and, after a crazy turn of events, including a violent attack on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the possibility of a S.H.I.E.L.D. compromise, he is branded a fugitive. So while being hunted by the mysterious Winter Soldier, he finds himself on the lam with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), vowing to uncover whatever plan is about to unfold and put a stop to it.

And it’s with the introduction of those helicarriers that the film introduces its themes. The Captain disagrees with the very idea, arguing that launching the operation would only scare people into giving up their freedoms (“This isn’t freedom; this is fear,” he explicitly says at one point). To him, placing these eyes in the sky, always peering below for potential threats, compromises the freedom and right to privacy America’s citizens deserve. In a post-9/11 world where phone tapping and other surveillance measures are commonplace, these ideas couldn’t be more relevant.

The film even questions the notion that joining the military is the greatest thing you can do. While the Captain still considers the well-being of the country’s citizens his number one priority, he talks about how joining today, as opposed to during the World War II era he grew up and found his patriotism in, isn’t the same. The moral compass of “the greatest generation” is now gone and we instead “protect” our citizens with fear and intimidation. In a strange way, the film supports serving your country through activism rather than enlisting in a time of government corruption and unconstitutional actions.

As intriguing as these themes are, “The Winter Soldier,” unfortunately, drops them all too quickly. Actual insight is limited and most come through deep exposition rather than narrative exploration. Instead, the film rests on the laurels of being yet another Marvel movie. The flip side to this somewhat disappointing coin is that, luckily, the majority of those Marvel movies, while not all great, have been pretty solid. The action here, while certainly not as bombastic as “The Avengers,” is serviceable, if a little clunky. While some of the action is fluid and fun, other moments are too shaky and hectic. The camera likes to zoom in occasionally and follow each punch and kick to their fast paced conclusions and doing so sometimes makes the action a bit hard to follow.

One welcome addition in this installment is the greater focus on Black Widow. Not much more than a periphery character in the previous films, she has an expanded role here and she is allowed to come into her own. She’s a more complicated person than her previous appearances might suggest and she has to battle her own motivations between doing what she’s ordered to do and doing what’s right. The bond she forms with the Captain doesn’t really lead anywhere if looking for an emotional arc, but it works nonetheless.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” will do exactly what filmgoers will expect of it and in that regard, it’s a success. Most won’t care about its thematic inconsistencies and had they not been included in the first place, one couldn’t fault it, but bringing them up and dropping them so quickly afterwards only to bring them up again in a cheesy late movie speech is a missed opportunity. This film had the potential to be one of the more intelligent, insightful movies in the Marvel canon, but ends up compromising its ideas for more of the same old Marvel action. It’s just a good thing that Marvel action is still as impressive as it is. But while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is easily recommendable right now, push this back a few years, when superhero fatigue has done more than show glimpses of itself, and it might not be.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier receives 3.5/5


Muppets Most Wanted

The Muppets are some of the most endearing pop culture icons in history. They’re just so darn lovable that even in their most kid-centric fare, there’s usually enough in there to entertain the adults, especially now. Many adults today grew up with the Muppets and, thanks to their big time resurgence in 2011’s succinctly titled “The Muppets,” they’re able to share the joy they experienced as children with their very own young ones. I imagine there’s nothing more pleasing than watching your child as he or she stares up at that screen in awe at something you too once found so magical. It’s here where the new film, “Muppets Most Wanted,” succeeds. Whereas “The Muppets” leaned heavily on nostalgia, to the point where it could be argued that adults would get more out of it than kids, this film is strongly focused on the tykes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it admittedly comes as a disappointment following its strong predecessor. Still, “Muppets Most Wanted” is charming and ridiculous in all the right ways.

The film takes place immediately after the first one. The story has wrapped and the Muppets wonder what they’re going to do next; that is until they see the cameras still lingering around. This must mean, they surmise, that they’re doing a sequel. After a hilarious opening number about sequels (and how they’re never quite as good as the original), they’re off on their next adventure with Dominic Badguy (whose last name means “Good Man” in French), played by Ricky Gervais. He claims to be a tour manager and agrees to jet them around the world to perform. However, he’s actually in cahoots with Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog” who uses their tour as a cover to commit crime. Before Kermit knows it, Constantine takes his place, given that they look almost exactly alike, while he rots away in a Russian prison run by Nadya (Tina Fey).

The story in “Muppets Most Wanted” isn’t great and it certainly doesn’t contain the meaning or emotion its predecessor had in spades. But while this won’t touch you the way “The Muppets” did, it will make you smile. And if you’re familiar with famous films, you’ll find even more to enjoy, with references to movies like Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” thrown for fun. The best moments in the film, however, come from its self-awareness, like with its aforementioned jabs at sequels despite being a sequel itself (the eighth one, to be exact, as Scooter points out) or with the gang’s quick narrative visit to “Plotpointburg.”

“Muppets Most Wanted” doesn’t stop there in its skewering of screenplay crutches or pop culture; even the various celebrities who appear as cameos don’t mind being poked fun of, like when pop star Usher shows up as, you guessed it, an usher. While most of these cameos are too good to spoil here, it goes without saying that the film, as with most Muppets productions, is filled to the brim with recognizable stars in bit parts that they would never accept for anything else. That’s just simply how desirable it is to be in a Muppets movie.

The film falters, however, when it gets around to its musical numbers. You won’t find a “Rainbow Connection” here, or even a catchy little ditty like “Life’s a Happy Song” from the last film. Aside from the opening number, not a single song is memorable, and even that opening song works more due to its self-referential humor than it does its actual musical composition. “Muppets Most Wanted” isn’t as light on its feet as previous films and a few solid musical numbers would have gone a long way towards curing that sense of boredom that occasionally sets in.

Yet “Muppets Most Wanted” is still entertaining. Despite a few adult jokes, this one is mostly for the kids, and that’s totally fine. Kids need the Muppets, a ragtag group of friends who love and accept each other, where no two are alike and whose differences aren’t highlighted, but nevertheless make them who they are. The Muppets have always been inclusive and their enthusiasm is infectious. This newest film is silly and has a goofy story (more so than usual), but that’s part of its charm and while you won’t be blown away, you’ll still walk out with a happy grin on your face.

Muppets Most Wanted receives 3.5/5


Bad Words

Jason Bateman is one of the most likable people in Hollywood. We may not know how he acts in private, but in films, interviews and other public appearances, he comes off as a charming, lovable goof. It’s that considerable charm that pulls him through some of his otherwise lackluster film and television efforts (“Identity Thief” comes to mind). With this, one can’t help but wonder what he was thinking when he agreed to do “Bad Words.” He’s not good at being bad and, with this being his feature length directorial debut, he doesn’t have the directing chops to make up for it. Not since “Bad Teacher” has a central character been so vile, so hurtful, so unnecessarily mean that he manages to kill any goodwill the film may have had otherwise. It’s going to be hard to top this character’s repugnancy this year and it’s almost certainly destined to be one of the worst of the year.

Guy Trilby (Bateman) is a 40 year old man who finds a loophole in the national children’s spelling bee contest that allows him to enter as a contestant. He even has a sponsor, as all participants must, in the form of Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a journalist for a nationally recognized online publication. She hopes to get to the root of his motivation, but he’s very reserved in that regard. He doesn’t want to reveal why he’s doing what he’s doing, but he has his reasons.

It’s a fairly weak plot with a thin narrative arc and an even thinner emotional one. Guy is unhappy and treats those around him poorly. To put it plainly, he’s a scumbag and it’s nearly impossible to care about him in any way. A good example of his personality comes early in the film when he’s on an airplane. A sweet Indian kid named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) starts talking to him, which, of course, is a minor inconvenience to him, so he proceeds to tell the kid to shut his “curry hole” or he’s going to tell the pilot his bag is ticking. While this is one of the more extreme examples of his pervasive boorishness, it nevertheless captures him well.

This wouldn’t be a problem if his actions were explained. More than anything else, this film needed a gradual reveal. Something needed to happen to open this hateful character up and reveal the man within to help the audience feel empathy, but that doesn’t appear to be on its agenda. Despite a tender moment or two, there’s no gradual reveal of Guy’s motivations. Instead, it’s merely said in passing. Without ruining the reveal itself, Jenny, being the journalist she is, figures out his motivation and his primary goal, to which he replies with the equivalent of, “Good job.” There’s no emotion in this scene, nothing to suggest that the man we see isn’t the man he wants to be.

In fact, when it appears he may build some goodwill, he promptly negates it with his puerile antics. Throughout the tournament, he manipulates kids around him into dropping out or otherwise losing, but as soon as he finds out someone has been manipulating him, he has a childish freak out. When the end rolls around, it’s shown that his actions have had zero repercussions and the closure he alludes to, which is the very reason he went on this strange journey, still appears to be out of grasp. He may take what some may consider the high road at a certain junction in the back half of the film, but it doesn’t negate the numerous low road decisions made prior.

It should also be mentioned that “Bad Words” simply isn’t funny. While a chuckle or two here and there may sneak its way out of some, the vileness of the character always serves as a reminder that the person you’re watching is more worthy of pity than laughs. Guy is a sad excuse for a man and an even sadder excuse for a character that we’re supposedly meant to root for. “Bad Words” is one of the most hateful, mean spirited comedies in recent memory and has close to zero redeeming factors.

Bad Words receives 0.5/5